Saturday, May 19, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #57 - Part 1

The attack on The Commons, our sense of being in a shared society

[N.B.: This is a somewhat re-written, somewhat expanded version of a post from March 2011.]

I mentioned last week that what I have come to call The Commons is under attack by the right wing. I mentioned it very briefly in the course of referring to Rep. Paul Rantin's budget-which-isn't-a-budget, briefly because I thought I had already discussed it here. It now seems that I haven't, so I thought what I mean by the term deserves a longer look.

First, a definition and some history. Among the meanings of the word "common" is "of or relating to the community as a whole; public." That's the important sense here. Traditionally, "the Commons" referred to resources held in common by a community. Most often, that resource was land; most of the time that land was for pasture, sometimes it was land for farming - but the Commons could include things like the right to fish or to take wild game on that land.

In England, the practice dated back at least to medieval times. But the complex system of land ownership which existed in England involved levels of ownership with varying degrees of claim on the land: There was fiefhold, leasehold, freehold - you don't want to know. The point is that a claim on land sometimes was subject to a stronger underlying claim and this "common land" in point of law was actually not held in common but was owned by the lord of the manor. Over time and particularly after the late 1500s, those lords found it more profitable to enclose the land. Sometimes it was a literal enclosure where the land was fenced off; sometimes it was a legal enclosure without a fence. It didn't matter: In either case, resources that had been used by all were now unavailable so that the relationship of people to the land had been changed, often resulting in them being forced off the land entirely.

There were several waves of such enclosures, as they came to be called, from the late 1500s, through the 1600s, into the 1700s. They were disruptive enough that they lead to two armed peasant revolts in the early 1600s. But "elite opinion" - which really meant the opinion of the lords of the manors - favored the enclosures because they were more profitable for the landowners. By the 1800s, that concept of the Commons as resources available to all was largely limited to some city parks.

That idea of the Commons was not unknown in the US; we can point to a couple of examples. For an obvious one, there is Boston Common, which was used as cow pasture from the 1630s until 1830, a period of almost 200 years. Then there is Sheep Meadow, part of Central Park in New York City. There was a design competition for the proposed park in 1858, which was won by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Originally, a part of the park was to be set aside as a parade ground for military drills, but after winning the competition Olmsted and Vaux convinced the park’s commissioners to drop the military use as incompatible with their vision of a quiet space - and from 1864 until 1934, Sheep Meadow was home to a flock of sheep. The picture, which I love, is one of sheep grazing on Sheep Meadow sometime between 1909 and 1916.

There is also a more modern sense of the Commons that includes things and concepts such as the arts, information, and heritage sites, heritage sites being those important to a shared culture or history. We might cite Old North Church, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Grand Canyon as examples of US heritage sites.

But when I talk about the Commons, I'm using the term in a rather broader sense not only as compared to its more usual economic understanding of referring to shared resources but in an even broader sense than that more modern understanding. I'm thinking of a philosophical Commons, a social Commons, of the idea of there being a public sphere in which all can participate, all have a stake, all have a part - and all have some responsibility. It is that space of socially shared and mutual duty, of what is or at least by rights should be equally available to all.

What I said last week is that this idea of the Commons, the idea that there are common interests and mutual responsibilities between and among all citizens simply by virtue of being in the same society, and the related idea of a social contract between the public and the government, is under attack from the right wing.

Now, it's true that this sense of the Commons has always been under attack from the elites of our society; indeed, that is likely true of the elites of any society. Elites never like the idea of all having a stake in their society and therefore all being deserving of sharing in its benefits, nor do they care for the idea of they themselves having responsibilities to others other than those self-imposed ones of noblesse oblige, the true purpose of which is to demonstrate that elite's superiority. But the intensity and range of the attack we are seeing now is nearly if not totally unprecedented for us here.

One example of this is the attacks on the franchise, on the ability of people to vote, "people" here referring mainly to the young, the poor, the elderly, and minorities - that is, to those who are in the eyes of our own lords of the manor the "wrong sorts" of people. I've talked about this before, and I surely will talk about it again; for now I just want to mention that this effort was just given another boost by New Hampshire, the state that continues to embarrass the rest of New England. The New Hampshire legislature already had a voter ID law in the works, and it has just passed an amendment that shortened list of acceptable forms of ID. Those in the legislature who are in favor of making it harder for the wrong sorts to vote insist, as their cohorts elsewhere always do, that it's necessary to prevent voter fraud. Amusingly, they then objected to opponents saying that there is no evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire by saying that - this is a quote - "There is no effort to determine voter fraud in this state." In other words, they are saying the bill is necessary to prevent voter fraud when by own words, the most that could be said is that they have no idea if there is any fraud or not.

What I wanted to focus on now is the fact that the on-going, decades-long, and largely successful campaign to turn "government" and "taxes" into words to be spat out with unrestrained contempt is being broadened into an attack on the very concept of a public, that is, a whole-community, economic sphere. Put another way, what is being rejected is the very idea, the very root idea, of an economic Commons where there exists, at least philosophically, at least hypothetically, a notion that society as a whole and every member therein is required to have some measure of concern to see to it not only that none are left utterly destitute but that none may be without the means to improve their economic condition.

Just consider as an example to illustrate the point: How long ago would we have laughed off the public stage someone dismissing public school teachers as just overpaid part-timers whose workday ends at 2pm and who are just ripping off taxpayers? But now we have heard exactly that attack and such deliberately demonizing denunciations are becoming common currency even as teacher tenure is under attack and laws to allow for, in effect, the privatization of public schools have been filed in about a dozen states. And I don't mean to have private schools, I mean to turn public schools into private ones.

That latter fact in particular reveals what is important here, what is the true underlying objection here, what is the unspoken desire here: The problem for those making these attacks lies not in the word "school" or the word "teachers" but in the word "public." The problem for them lies in the fact that it is done through government, that by its nature it is a whole-community undertaking, one for which entire community - including them - has responsibility.

It's hard to underestimate the importance, the potential impact, of this targeting of the Commons yet at the same time it's hard to make crystal clear what the change, what the shift, is. So try this: This goes beyond the idea of "limited" or "small" government, beyond the idea of whoever it was who said he wanted government to be small enough that he could drown it in the bathtub, beyond the notion of arguing if government involvement in this or that is a good thing or not, beyond even arguing if government properly should be involved in this or that, to being an attack on very legitimacy of the idea of government as existing to serve the commonweal, the very legitimacy of idea of government "of, by, and for the people," the very legitimacy of concept of government as an instrument of "We the People." Indeed, an attack on the very concept of "We the People" itself.

It is the farthest reaches of libertarian daydreaming, souped up and mainstreamed by the powerful voices that stand to gain. At the same time, it is stripped of the comforting libertarian fantasy that voluntary private charity will step in where government vanishes and deal with all the have-nots, stripped of it because even that implies some sort of social responsibility on the part of the haves - and it is that concept of responsibility to others that is being denied.

That idea, that denial of an economic Commons, is marching in lockstep with a denial of a political Commons, with moves being undertaken to restrict participation in the political life to the nation. This is not just about the voting restrictions, it's not even just about the corruption of our political process by the power of money such that in the vast majority of cases, the candidate with the most money wins. It's about new restrictions on the right of protest, new limits on the rights of assembly, new assaults on our privacy, new attacks on the Fourth Amendment - all of which I will get to next week - even to calls to alter the 14th Amendment to change the understanding of just who is a citizen.

Which is really the point here: It's not that such dreams will be immediately fulfilled or even fulfilled in the foreseeable future, it's that what not long ago would have been thought proof of madness we are now supposed to accept as within the bounds of reasonable discussion. Even the baseline concept of who is a citizen is now supposed to be up for debate. That challenge may not succeed - in fact, nothing has been heard about it for a while now - but that doesn't change the fact that it's there and has been pushed not just by the fringes of the fringe but by central voices of the right wing: Sen. Mitch McConnell - old "Fishface" - has said he wants the Senate it have hearings on that.

And this is happening at time when not only the gap between the rich and the poor but between the rich and everyone else is growing and not only growing, but growing faster and faster. The top 1% has done progressively better in each economic recovery of the past two decades. During the Clinton era expansion, 45% of the total gain in income went to the top 1%. During the Bush recovery, the figure was 65%; in the current "recovery," it is 93%. In 2010, the most recent figures available, the income of households in the top 1% went up an average of 11.6%, while the income of households in the 99% went up, on average, by $80. Not $80 a week, not $80 a month, $80 a year.

We have tolerated this because we persist in clinging to this touching fantasy that any one of us with some hard work, some pluck, and a bit of luck can join the rich in their yachts and country clubs, a dream enthusiastically endorsed, advanced, underwritten, and cheered on by our own lords of the manor, who know better. In a survey in 1952, only 8% disagreed with the assertion that there was plenty of opportunity for such personal progress. That is, only 8% said there wasn't much opportunity for advancement. As recently as 1998, that figure was only 17%. However, that may at long last be changing: Last November, 41% said there is not much opportunity in America, two and a-half times the level of 13 years before.

Lord knows there is enough wrong with this country and its heritage - but dammit, there are some good things in that heritage, too. We have done much evil as a nation, but we have also done some good. There are ideals that we fail to live up to, fail on a daily basis, but they at least are there to strive for. There are rights and freedoms, the privileges and immunities of citizenship, that too often have been violated and transgressed, but they have survived and even in some ways - although it can be hard to see it at times - they have been expanded over the course of our history.

But every day now, those ideals are under attack, those rights and freedoms are being shrunk and circumscribed, those privileges and immunities are being stripped away, shredded, discarded by people more interested in their personal perks and positions and their private power trips than in what we as a society are supposed to be, what we like to tell ourselves we are as a people and as a nation. What we are seeing every day is sometimes done consciously and sometimes unconsciously (in the sense of being useful idiots), but still what we are seeing is a conspiracy against every notion of equality under the law. Against every notion of community responsibility. Against every notion of justice. Against every notion of decency and fairness.

What we are seeing is an unfolding pattern of betrayal - no, rather, an unfolding pattern of treason against every decent part of our heritage as Americans. To undermine the Commons is to undermine what it means to be a people and a society. It is a despicable undertaking.

An English folk poem from 1764 had it right:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.


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